If you’re on holiday in North Devon, you may be looking for things to do in Ilfracombe. You’re in luck – I’ve put together my full guide of attractions in the town in this blog post!
Underrated but mesmerising, the North Devon town of Ilfracombe has one of the most picturesque harbours in the region and is poised as the ideal beach town for enjoying the great British seaside.
The town may be a little dated, but the Victorian terraced houses encompass history at every step, and the surrounding beaches are nothing short of spectacular.
Use Ilfracombe as a base to explore the entire North Devon coastline, or traverse from the town into Exmoor where you can enjoy some of the most spectacular hikes along dramatic coastline and to gushing waterfalls. Plus, Ilfracombe is the place to pass through if you want to visit one of my favourite places on earth – Lundy Island.
Things to do in Ilfracombe
The best things to do in Ilfracombe include exploring the historic harbour, heading out on an Ilfracombe sea safari and looking out for seals, enjoying stunning views on the nearby South West Coast Path walking trails and taking a boat to the beautiful Lundy Island.
Walk around Ilfracombe Harbour
When the sun’s out, there’s nowhere better than Ilfracombe Harbour.
The largest harbour in North Devon, it’s a beauty on a clear day!
The first time I visited Ilfracombe, I spent a couple of hours just sitting by the harbour, taking in the surroundings.
Listen to the cawing sounds of seagulls, enjoy the sights of the boats bobbing on the harbour and perhaps even purchase an ice cream from one of the many shops lining the harbourfront.
In the summertime, there’s nowhere better!
If you’re looking for walks in the town, head from the fishing harbour to Wildersmouth Beach.
This is undoubtedly one of the best things to do in Ilfracombe because you’ll be able to take in the town’s atmosphere and it’s completely free!
See the bronze statue of Verity, a pregnant woman on the harbour
For fans of the curious, Ilfracombe has an unusual statue that welcomes visitors to the harbour.
Verity is a 20-metre-high pregnant woman made of bronze and stainless steel. Part of her stomach is bisected, showing a fetus inside.
Created by Damien Hirst, the statue of Verity and was loaned to North Devon for five years – but this was nine years ago, and she’s still there now!
She’s supposed to represent truth and justice; she has many fans and plenty of critics too!
You’ll see this statue while you’re walking around the harbour – you can’t miss it – but take some time to see it up close too!
Take a boat trip around the coastline with Ilfracombe Sea Safari
“Around the corner of the coast is Somerset”, our skipper informed us, as we sat in a RIB boat in front of Lynmouth. “We don’t venture there…” she continued, in an ominous tone. “Strange things happen there”.
But something even stranger was unfurling in front of us, as boats by the dozen made their way out to sea. When our skipper enquired what was happening, a local replied “it’s a sea burial. The guy was a fisherman in Lynmouth his whole life, and he wanted his ashes to be scattered at sea”.
While I’m fairly sure not all boat tours in Ilfracombe result in accidentally crashing a sea funeral, it was a moving tradition to witness.
We weren’t very lucky with the weather (and ended up driving back to Exmouth rather than camping in North Devon as we were so wet by the end!) but witnessing this ceremony was something really special.
So what can you normally expect from an Ilfracombe RIB boat tour?
As Ilfracombe sits where the Bristol Channel and the Atlantic Ocean meet, the seas are rife with opportunities to see seals and other marine life – even during our day of poor weather, we saw seals.
These boat trips are among the best things to do in Devon.
They’re a great opportunity to see wildlife, including seals (which you can find in many spots in Devon and Cornwall), as well as spot beautiful waterfalls along the coastline and see beaches from a completely different angle.
Ilfracombe Sea Safari also offers sunset cruises and fast boats to Lundy Island.
Rates are reasonable, and it’s a fantastic holiday activity for all the family.
Visit the best Ilfracombe beaches
Nestled amongst Atlantic beaches, Ilfracombe town is in prime position to enjoy the gorgeous sandy beaches.
There are plenty in town – if the sun’s out while you’re here, make sure you check out the following!
- Wildersmouth Beach is a short walk from the harbour and is a great place to spend some time and enjoy all the restaurants and shops of the seaside town. Take a look at the rock pools and even take a paddle in the ocean.
- Ilfracombe Beach is right by the harbour and, when the tide is out, is a great place to relax and sunbathe, build sandcastles, or do whatever else you like to do at the beach!
- Cheyne Beach is a short walk from the harbour. It’s more like a patch of sand than a beach – it’s tiny – but it has some lovely scenic rocks to explore.
- Rapparee Cove is a small cove by Ilfracombe. It is a beautiful place, but it was the site of a tragedy in the late 18th century. The beach the Transport London boat shipwrecked in 1796 – tragically killing many African people who were enslaved on board the ship. It’s important to be aware of this tragedy when visiting.
Surfing on other surrounding beaches
Fan of the surf? Some of the best North Devon beaches for watersports are close to Ilfracombe.
Head to the picture-perfect seaside town of Woolacombe for some of the best waves in the area – Croyde is right next door and also has some excellent surf.
In fact, this whole area has been designated a world surfing reserve, largely due to the excellent waves in Woolacombe and Croyde.
You can even take a bus to Woolacombe, and there are plenty of surf schools and rental offices that’ll help you take to the waves!
Elsewhere, you’ll find excellent swell in Saunton Sands and Westward Ho!
Take a look at my surfing in Devon article which explains everything in a little more detail.
Explore the Ilfracombe tunnels beaches
Ilfracombe’s first forays into tourism began during the Victorian age.
It largely was put on the 19th-century Victorian map due to the Tunnels Beaches.
They were carved out in the 1820s to give horse and carts access to the beach, which was, until then, only accessible by climbing over rocks.
Nowadays they’re privately owned.
You must pay a small sum to enter, but once you have you’ll learn about how they were built and explore their network, traversing tunnels that lead out to small beaches and swimming spots.
If you’re engaged, The Tunnels is also a beautiful wedding venue!
See the local aquatic life at the Ilfracombe Aquarium
For rainy-day attractions in Devon, head to Ilfracombe Aquarium!
Here, you’ll learn about the sea around North Devon, featuring what marine life you can expect to find in the waters, including seals, cold-water fish and aquatic plants.
There are also displays of flora and fauna found in the rivers, estuaries and seas nearby, as well as Lundy Island!
Walk to Forthglade, the viewpoint of Ilfracombe
For a postcard-perfect view of Ilfracombe, follow the South West Coast Path in an easterly direction away from the town.
You’ll clamber up cliffs and, from a unique vantage point, take in the most glorious coastal views surrounding the North Devon town.
From this lookout, you’ll take in the entire town, including the curious landmark theatre and even the statue of Verity.
Pack a picnic and take in vistas of the ships travelling between the Bristol Channel and the Atlantic Ocean!
We adored this viewpoint when we were hiking the South West Coast Path (and aiming for Ilfracombe!); not only did it remind us that we were nearly at our destination, but it also showed off our favourite North Devon beach town in its best light!
Walk to Hele Beach
If you’re in the mood for a longer hike and fancy exploring more amazing beaches around Ilfracombe, head to Hele!
We walked past this peaceful beach on our South West Coast Path hike.
A small bay near Ilfracombe, the walk to Hele Beach consists of climbing up and down a big hill – but it shouldn’t take you too long.
If you’ve already walked to the Ilfracombe viewpoint, you’re halfway there!
Hele Beach is quieter than others in the area, although it can still be busy at the weekends and during school holidays – it’s a lot quieter if you visit out of season.
There’s a pub at Hele Beach, so you’ll be able to get a nice cold drink after your walk!
If you don’t fancy walking, you can also drive to Hele Beach in just five minutes – there’s a car park close by.
Stroll around the Ilfracombe town Museum (perfect on a rainy day)
Delve into North Devon’s history by visiting the town’s local museum.
Ilfracombe Museum is in the town centre and is one of the best things to do in Ilfracombe in the rain.
Detailing historic life in Ilfracombe, the museum incorporates a Victorian kitchen, an exhibition on historical tools and trades, a gallery of the town and an exhibition about Lundy Island.
Take a whirl on crazy golf
Great British seaside towns and crazy golf go together hand-in-hand.
Ilfracombe especially encompasses a fun 15-hole golf course, all with different designs and challenges.
It’s one of the best kid-friendly attractions in town, but it’s fun for adults too – my boyfriend and I visited as part of a date night once in Ilfracombe and had a wonderful time competing at each hole!
Try a Devonshire cream tea at one of the many cafes
There’s one major sweet treat that you need to try when you’re in Devon – a cream tea.
This is a small meal typically served as an afternoon snack.
Popular in Devon and Cornwall, it consists of scones with clotted cream and jam, along with a pot of tea.
The main difference between a Devonshire cream tea and a Cornish cream tea is the order in which you put the cream and jam on the scone.
In Cornwall, jam goes on first, whereas in Devon, the cream goes on first! Make sure that you get it right – you’ll be met with nods of approval from the locals if you do (and disdain if you don’t!).
As a side note, I come from a Cornish family and live in Devon – so I never know which way to prepare my scones!
Day trip to Lundy Island from Ilfracombe
Board the MS Oldenburg in Ilfracombe, listening to the sounds of seagulls calling, and set out on the Bristol Channel for two hours, before docking up in Lundy Island – a North Devon highlight, but somewhere that feels completely removed from the hustle and bustle of modern-day life.
Boasting lofty cliffs and a diverse range of wildlife, Lundy Island is a must-visit for anyone who’s at all interested in nature.
Don’t miss the ranger tours which cover the south part of the island – you’ll learn lots of information about the island’s history and wildlife, including how it was once occupied by Moroccan pirates in the 15th century!
Don’t miss the two lighthouses – one that you can climb to the top of – and try to walk the whole length of the island if you have time!
If you’re visiting Lundy on a warm day, you could also go swimming or snorkelling in the sea.
My partner also wrote about our day trip to Lundy Island for the Independent (he’s a West Country based travel journalist). Check out his article here.
Snorkelling with seals at Lundy
We once visited Lundy Island as part of a snorkelling trip, where we jumped in the sea (layered up with a wetsuit, of course) and swam with the playful creatures for around 45 minutes.
After snorkelling, we spent a bit of time on the island!
Day trip vs overnight trip
I’ve visited Lundy a few times, and while I do love it as a day trip, we’ve always been disappointed when it’s time to go – the boats arrive on the island at around noon and leave around 4pm.
If you have more time, it’s well worth staying on Lundy Island for a few days! You can book accommodation here.
Visiting in the winter? Tours to Lundy still operate, but the seas are too rough for the MS Oldenberg to cross. Instead, you’ll need to enter Lundy by helicopter!
Walk to Combe Martin on the South West Coast Path
Spanning from South West Coast Path runs from Minehead in Somerset to Poole in Dorset, the 630-mile-long coastal path boasts many beaches, coves and bays.
My partner and I have done over half of it – we did Minehead to Lizard Point (going through Ilfracombe!) in one hike, and have completed many other day hikes in South Cornwall and Devon!
If you’re staying in Ilfracombe, you can easily get out and hike the nearby sections – one of which is the route to Combe Martin.
The Ilfracombe to Combe Martin hike is five miles or eight kilometres long; while it does have some hills, it’s not too difficult – and the views of the coast are spectacular.
You’ll walk past the beautiful Watermouth Harbour and Broadsands Beach – on a clear day they look like they could be in Thailand!
The most challenging segment of this coastal path is the last bit into Ilfracombe, where you do have to walk up and down a couple of steep hills.
Hike the South West Coast Path to Mortehoe or Woolacombe
Opt to hike the South West Coast Path in the opposite direction, to Mortehoe or Woolacombe to see where the Bristol Channel turns into the Atlantic Ocean and experience the rocky, dramatic Morte Point.
The Ilfracombe to Mortehoe hike is about 10 kilometres or 13 miles.
You’ll see some epic vistas of the stunning coastline, passing through bays like Lee Beach, finishing by Morte Point which protrudes out into the sea.
If you carry on the hike into Woolacombe, not only will you experience the stunning beaches and beautiful coastline, but you can easily take a bus back to Ilfracombe!
Head to the Combe Martin Wildlife and Dinosaur Park
Whether you walk, drive (around 15 minutes) or take the 301 or 31 bus to Combe Martin, check out the Wildlife and Dinosaur Park when you arrive – especially if you have kids in tow!
The Combe Martin Wildlife and Dinosaur Park is a popular family-friendly attraction close to Combe Martin and Ilfracombe.
Here, you’ll see animals like raccoons, lions, penguins and pygmy goats and see over 30 dinosaur models, including a life-sized t rex!
You’ll also find an eerie tomb of the pharaohs, a dino express train ride and tranquil botanical gardens.
There’s something for everyone at the park!
Hike or bike the Tarka Trail
Nature spans the hiking and biking trail of the Tarka Trail, which is one of the best trails in Devon.
Named after a fictional otter called Tarka, the trail’s easy to access from Ilfracombe.
It takes in North Devon’s coastal and inland towns and is a fantastic way to see the region’s nature.
The entire route is 180 miles, but you can easily do a shorter chunk while staying in Ilfracombe.
If cycling, try out the circular trip from Ilfracombe, which takes in Woolacombe, Georgeham and Braunton before looping back into Ilfracombe.
This route passes through both busy roads and tarmac cycle trails.
If you’re on foot, take the South West Coast Path, or alternatively, catch a bus to Barnstaple and walk down the River Torridge to Instow.
Then, head up the river Taw to Bideford, where you can take a return bus to Ilfracombe.
This hike is around 10 miles and takes 3-4 hours – nearly the whole way is flat.
Learn about history at Hele Corn Mill
Hele Corn Mill is just outside of Ilfracombe and is one of the most historic sites in this part of the county.
Visit to see see how the flour is made, and enjoy a bite to eat in their award-winning tea room – it’s won Devon Life’s “best tea room” award a whopping four times!
You can see more visiting information and their opening hours on the Hele Corn Mill website.
Visit the town’s art galleries
Artists have flocked to Ilfracombe harbour for years, painting scenic images of the coastline and beautiful beaches.
If you’re visiting in May, try to time your trip for the Ilfracombe Art Trail, when a selection of locally-made artworks are spread around the town.
Walk along the fish trail
The Ilfracombe Fish Trail runs along the harbour and coastline, consisting of several noticeboards where you can read about maritime history and culture in the town.
Ideal for exploring with kids, the fish trail is a complete education into the importance of the maritime industry to Ilfracombe.
See the Chapel of St Nicholas
Dating back to the 14th century, the Chapel of St Nicholas is the oldest working lighthouse in the UK.
In the 15th century, a beacon was installed in the chapel to ensure lifeboats safely sailed into the harbour.
During the dissolution of the monasteries, the Chapel of St Nicholas was no longer a religious building; instead, it acted as a lighthouse and home.
Looking over the harbour, it’s now a Grade I listed building, and visitors are welcome to enter and explore.
Walk up to Capstone Hill
Capstone Hill sits above Wildersmouth Beach and offers spectacular vistas over the surrounding coastline.
There is an incline, but it’s a fairly easy walk otherwise, and it’s a wonderful spot to catch the sunset!
Head to Chambercombe Manor
Dating back to the times of the Domesday Book (11th century) and retaining many of its traditional features, Chambercombe Manor is a must-visit for any fans of the paranormal.
It was owned by Sir Henry Champernon, who was Lord of the Manor in Ilfracombe, although over the centuries it became a farmhouse.
As expected for a house of its age, there are plenty of ghost stories lurking around the building!
You can either visit it for a spot of afternoon tea, or perhaps join one of its paranormal events where you’ll get in touch with the supernatural!
Visit Watermouth Castle
Searching for kid-friendly attractions near Ilfracombe?
Head to Watermouth Castle, a family theme park that’s located halfway between Ilfracombe and Combe Martin.
The perfect spot for a family day out, Watermouth Castle’s a Victorian castle, dating back to 1825 – it was made by Arthur Davie Basset as a gift for his bride Harriet.
But nowadays it operates as a theme park, encompassing rides both outside and inside.
Watermouth Family Theme Park is a short drive from Ilfracombe, or you can also walk there on the coastal path.
Day trip to Exmoor National Park
Ilfracombe is right near Exmoor National Park’s boundary – Combe Martin is only a 15 minute drive away.
From Combe Martin, you’ll find towering cliffs with dramatic coastline. A little further, discover the pretty fishing village of Lynmouth and its sister village, Lynton.
Want to take a hike? There are plenty in Exmoor!
These routes are challenging and contain lots of steep hills, but the terrain is ideal for adventurous travellers and experienced hikers!
I walked through Exmoor as part of my South West Coast Path adventure – and did find it to be the most challenging part of the trail (partially due to the difficulty level and partially due to the fact that I wasn’t very well-trained at that point).
Take a look at my Minehead to Porlock walk guide for more information about this part of Exmoor.
Where to stay in Ilfracombe
From hostels to campsites to luxury hotels, there are tonnes of places to stay in Ilfracombe! Here are our top picks:
The Avoncourt Lodge is a friendly family-run bed and breakfast.
Rooms are cleaned to a high standard and have their own attached en suite. There are attractive gardens attached to the property.
The Grand Harbour Hotel is a newly opened hotel just steps away from Ilfracombe’s harbour area.
It has spacious, sunny rooms with modern features and en suite bathrooms with power showers.
The Devonian is a boutique hotel based in Ilfracombe.
It features modern, trendy rooms with attractive artwork on the walls. There is also a sauna and spa on site.
Ilfracombe is a popular North Devon holiday town, but it’s also got a rich history that’s worth knowing about!
The town dates back to the iron age, when local Dunomii tribes built a fort in nearby Hillsborough.
The first mention of its name was recorded in the 11th century. Then, it was known as the tongue twister ‘Alfreinscoma‘, which means ‘the valley of the sons of Alfred’. Over time, this name changed to what it is today, Ilfracombe.
The historic harbour dates back from the Medieval period.
It was recorded as a place that provided King John with men and ships to invade Ireland in 1208.
Some of the buildings around the harbour area still date back to the 15th century.
It is also renowned for being where the Bowen family lived. James Bowen, who lived in the 18th century, was the master of HMS Queen Charlotte and famously fought at the ‘Glorious First of June’ Battle in the French Revolutionary Wars.
In the early 19th century, Ilfracombe was still a busy harbour, with lots of ship traffic.
Shortly after, the Ilfracombe tunnels were created, which enabled people to access some of the beaches by horse and carriage.
This caused an influx of tourism to the region, and Ilfracombe became a popular Victorian resort town.
The town has remained a tourist spot to this day, and is one of the best places to stay in Devon.
While some of the buildings are a little dated, the town has a lovely charm, and the scenery is spectacular.
FAQs about visiting Ilfracombe
Is Ilfracombe worth visiting?
For those who love coastal towns with beautiful landscapes, Ilfracombe is definitely worth visiting!
The town has a rich maritime history and boasts several attractions such as the famous Damien Hirst statue, Verity, and the award-winning Ilfracombe Aquarium.
You can also enjoy the beautiful sandy beaches, explore the historic harbour, and indulge in local seafood.
What is Ilfracombe known for?
Ilfracombe is known for its picturesque harbour, stunning coastal scenery, and Victorian architecture.
It boasts art and culture, with galleries, exhibitions, and festivals held throughout the year.
Ilfracombe is home to some unique landmarks, such as the famous Damien Hirst statue, Verity, and the fascinating tunnels at Chambercombe Manor.
Which is nicer Woolacombe or Ilfracombe?
It depends on your personal preference!
Woolacombe is a popular seaside resort with a three-mile long sandy beach, while Ilfracombe is a charming coastal town with a picturesque harbor and stunning coastal views.
Personally, I prefer Ilfracombe – but many favour Woolacombe. Visit both and see what you think!
What shops does Ilfracombe have?
In Ilfracombe, you’ll find clothing stores, gift shops, grocery stores, and specialty shops.
The town also has a weekly market where local vendors sell fresh produce, handmade crafts, and other goods.
While Ilfracombe doesn’t have an overwhelming amount of shops, there are still plenty of options for those looking to do some shopping.
Why go to Ilfracombe?
Ilfracombe’s a popular destination due to its stunning beaches, picturesque harbour and fantastic coastal views.
While here, you can explore the town’s rich history, including its famous Victorian architecture, Ilfracombe Museum and see the fascinating Tunnels Beaches.
Is Ilfracombe good for holidays?
Yes! Ilfracombe’s a fantastic holiday destination for families, couples, and even solo travellers.
With beautiful beaches, scenic coastal walks, and quaint shops and restaurants, Ilfracombe has something for everyone.
Whether you’re looking for a relaxing beach trip or an adventurous outdoorsy getaway, Ilfracombe has something to offer!
The Best Ilfracombe Attractions
Epic beaches in tranquil coves, fascinating museums, beautiful viewpoints and a range of nearby North Devon attractions – there are so many things to see in Ilfracombe.
If you’re planning a trip to this charming town, don’t forget to check out the rest of my Devon guides.